Did you know there are nine subspecies of tiger, three of them already made extinct in the last century by the activities of man? Neither did I until now – but more on that later…
There is a story in the news at the moment about the plight of Siberian tigers. This has made me realise that for decades I had believed Siberian tigers were white tigers – maybe because I associated their whiteness with the ice and snow of the northern wastes…
But I was wrong, the white tigers in zoos are not Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) but Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris). A tiger usually needs a particular recessive gene from both parents in order to turn out white and this doesn’t seem to be present in the Siberian gene pool.
This is not surprising when scientists consider the 500 or so remaining Siberian tigers seem to be descended from maybe 14 individuals.
There was another story today about the gift of two white tigers to Al Ain Wildlife Park in Abu Dhabi. These rarities seem to be popular as pets for the rich and famous.
The white variant is bigger than the standard Bengal tiger and there are several hundred in zoos all over the world, about 100 of those still in India. There are now thought to be no white tigers left in the wild.
In the 1960s when I was a child, we sometimes went by train through the Severn Tunnel to Bristol Zoo and this was where I picked up the guide book pictured here, featuring the latest acquisition on the front – one of a pair of beautiful white tigers. I remember that was the reason we went that day.
According to the guidebook:
“The white tigers which were purchased in June 1963 were the first pair ever to be exhibited in a Zoological Garden and at the present time are the only pair outside India”.
Elsewhere it says:
“In 1951 an entirely new device was tried for showing these animals [large cats] without the intervention of bars, by means of ‘invisible’ glass windows, and recently three-quarter-inch thick glass was used in the lower section of the new outside cage for the white tigers.”
I remember seeing the tigers in their glass-fronted cage and being awed. Now I think I would be sad, that such wonderful wild creatures are kept in captivity – even if it is in an attempt to preserve them.
White tigers are seen by some as great ambassadors and can be used to highlight the plight of all the tigers in the world, whatever their colour, and promote fund-raising for conservation.
Now I think of it, the tiger was a popular motif in my 1960s childhood. There were the Esso “put a tiger in your tank” adverts and Tony the Tiger, a cartoon character who claimed Kellogg’s sugar Frosties were “Grrrr-eat!”
Frosties are known as Frosted Flakes in the USA and the word sugar has since been dropped from the name, to make them sound healthier.
My brother was a good artist and drew a lovely tiger’s face for my mother to embroider in satin stitch on the back of his black leather biking jacket.
The pictured embroidered tiger’s eye from Silverymoonbeams on Etsy reminds me of this.
Here is a website about Siberian tigers which, after all that, corrects the name to Amur tigers, as they are from that region of Russia, not Siberia at all. And it gives the Latin name of the subspecies, Panthera tigris altaica.
I am learning about tigers as I go along here, but I see from Wikipedia that there were nine subspecies of tiger until the 20th century, but three of these have already become extinct.
Here are the nine, with pictures and links, mostly to the extensive Wikipedia information…
The biggest living cat, Panthera tigris altaica is slightly paler that the Indian tiger and has coarse fur and extra fat to protect it from its cold environment. It is endangered.
The Amoy tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis, is one of the smallest subspecies of tiger. Its conservation status is “critically endangered” and it may already be extinct in the wild.
The Indochinese tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti, was given its Latin name in honour of Jim Corbett, a great hunter of man-eating tigers in India who became something of a conservationist in his old age, dying in 1955.
This tiger is still found in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, but no longer in China, where the man who killed the last one is currently in prison for 12 years… It is endangered.
The Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sumatrae, is the smallest surviving tiger subspecies and is found in the wild only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It seems to be genetically distinct from the other tiger subspecies and may become a separate breeding species.
It has narrower stripes than other tigers and more of a beard and mane, especially in males. Its small size helps it move swiftly through dense rain forests and its webbed feet make it a very fast swimmer. It may even drive hoofed prey into the water. So much for cats not liking water!
The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered on its homeland, largely due to the loss of habitat to palm oil plantations.
The Bengal tiger remains the most populous in the world, although it is still under threat from the activities of man and considered an endangered species. It is found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
Panthera tigris tigris is the newer Latin name for the subspecies, taking over from Panthera tigris bengalensis. This is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh.
The male Bengal tiger is often bigger than the Siberian tiger. There seems to be a great deal of genetic diversity in the range of coat colours, as this subspecies is the source of the white tigers I mentioned above and there is also a pure white and possibly an all-black mutation.
The Malayan tiger is only slightly bigger than the Sumatran tiger and has markings closer to the Indochinese tiger. It was separated from the Indochinese subspecies in 2004 and its Latin name is now Panthera tigris jacksoni after tiger expert Peter Jackson. Although in Malaysia they were not happy about this and call it Panthera tigris malayensis.
The Malayan tiger is not doing as badly as some, with maybe 600-800 animals in the wild, but is still considered to be endangered.
Then there are the recently extinct tigers…
The small Bali tiger, Panthera tigris balica, was hunted to extinction by mankind. The last was probably killed in 1937.
The Javan tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was eventually hunted to extinction by the 1960s.
This was a very close relative of the Siberian tiger and now considered to be the same subspecies, Panthera tigris altaica, although originally it was called Panthera tigris virgata. It tends to be slightly smaller than the Russian variety.
It was separated from the other population and found in Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
It seems to have become extinct in the late 1950s.
But what of Bristol Zoo’s white tigers? According to Wikipedia the last descendants of these were a group of orange tigers from “outcrosses” which were bought by a Pakistani senator and shipped to Pakistan.
Adopt a tiger with the WWF